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World of Warcraft used to be my game of choice. “Vanilla WoW” as they called it, brought me some of the best video game experiences I have had. Nothing quite like killing Ragnaros for the first time with a group of 39 other people you have never actually met. Experiences like this, the friends I made, and the elite group one was part of for having purples is what kept me playing. Then, Blizzard decided to give the game the “kiss of death” as I see it: accessibility.

Accessibility – or “catering to the casuals” as I call it – is slowly having an impact on the video game industry’s biggest titles. While change can be a good thing, accessibility seems to be exponentially finding its way to the forefront of video game designers’ minds. Is this a good or bad thing?

Whether it is a good or bad thing depends on how you look at it. On the one end, accessibility equals money. This is a great thing for the video game industry. Denying such a fact is absolute ignorance. More now than ever, a broader audience is sitting down (or standing up in the case of motion control) to enjoy our favorite source of entertainment.

The “Wii era” has brought about a unique shift in the industry. Casual gamers are a large market that can help drive the industry into the next generation. However, that same market can also shape it; which it is. Unfortunately, when a shift occurs, the minority is generally left with a sour taste in their mouth. In this case, the minority is the hardcore.

At first, it felt as if shovelware was going to be the driving force of games aimed towards the casual gamer. While shovelware still exists and is able to turn a quick profit due to short and cheap development cycles, they have quickly over-saturated the market and found their way off store shelves. Instead, casual games have become more mainstream through the quickly growing digital age.

Arcade and Indie titles have finally – and rightfully so – found their place in the market through the means of digital downloads. Casual gamers, over the course of 3 years, have been provided with an overwhelming amount of titles to fuel their gaming needs. But what has over-saturating the market really done except help transition the casual gamer into the next level of “gamer”?

It is starting to feel like the video game industry is doing a bit of hand holding. Drawing the casual gamers in, over-saturating the market to find what fits their needs, and then quickly trimming the fat to make them more of the mainstream gamer. But by doing so, the games we know and love reshape themselves to be more accessible.

The most recent example is Mass Effect 2. Undoubtedly one of the best experiences in a video game you can have. But the gameplay mechanics drastically changed between Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2. The reason? Accessibility.

Old-school RPGs as we know it are dying due to this one mindset. Mass Effect 2 stripped itself down to bare-bone RPG gameplay mechanics; almost to the point of obvious hand holding and streamlined progression. This is greatly evident in the weapon upgrades placed in missions, removal of kill by kill experience, and reduced number of upgradeable skills. What was once an RPG with shooter elements, quickly became a shooter with watered down RPG elements.

Whether these changes were for the best is entirely subjective. As was said previously, Mass Effect 2 is a phenomenal experience, but for entirely different reasons than those that made Mass Effect 1 an experience.

While shooters are a favorite among the masses, the changes in Mass Effect 2 made it feel like a cop-out. The removal of a lot of the gameplay elements I enjoy, in the name of accessibility, is extremely disheartening.

The same changes can be seen in the upcoming title Fable 3. Once again, a game is re-evaluated and its RPG elements are watered down to appeal to a broader audience. Accessibility was at the top of the developers’ and designers’ minds when attempting to bring the audience a new experience in the world of Albion. The latest dev diary below proves that.

Outside of RPGs, change can also be seen more and more each year in sports titles. Madden NFL 11 for example, is basing almost everything around accessibility now. With Mark Turmell, creator of NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, at EA Tiburon’s disposal, the latest Madden will undoubtedly see changes that cater to not only hardcore sim fans, but also the casual players that find Madden’s entry criteria to be a bit too steep.

Accessibility can be a great thing. A broader audience to expand and shape the future of the video game industry may be for the best. But as it stands now, as a hardcore gamer, the steps being taken to make games more approachable is starting to strip away reasons I play games.

Old-school gameplay mechanics that we know and love are being watered down or altogether lost. It has gotten to the point where I will be depending on one or two titles a year to fulfill my old-school gaming needs. The video game industry is driving the casual gamer in, and, at the same time, inadvertently pushing the hardcore gamer out.

Maybe I’m wrong though. Maybe this is the industry’s “video killed the radio star” moment. I honestly hope it is. Because if accessibility wins, the noobs win. Do you really want that?

Here’s to hoping the video game industry finds a happy medium. That way everyone wins.

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Kevin. Vanilla WoW was something you could be proud of if you were in one of the top few guilds able to raid classics like Molten Core and Blackwing Lair and get something to show for your work.

    Sure, there are problems with this model as stated, because it only caters to the top few who are able to dedicate tons of hours to getting the best of the best. However, the current direction of the game feels as though you should start with epics, as there is absolutely no work involved in getting them, these days. That’s why I stopped playing.

    Should the game industry cater to just hardcore players? No, but it shouldn’t hold everyone’s hand either. Finding a happy medium involves giving your hardcore gamers what they want without having to suffer from changes caused by casuals whining, while still catering to their need to game without feeling left out. It’s a slippery ground we’ve yet to find any foothold on, which is truly a shame.

    • avatar JasonN

      Vanilla WoW was all fine and cool if… you played a class that top raid guilds wanted. if not you were left with the other players with similar mediocre gear, to run mediocre dungeons, and have a mediocre gaming experience. I’m not saying that you should be able to log on for 30 minutes and achieve great things however, having a job, shouldn’t be the reason you can’t achieve your “video game goals”

      Thats when a game becomes more like a job and a responsibility, and less fun. Isn’t a “game” the exact thing we play to get away from things like jobs and responsibilities?

    • And exactly why I don’t play WoW anymore.

    • avatar Kagebure

      14 day Trial was enough for me too realize. I was better suited playing anything on my Xbox. I thought it was something like Diablo 2 What I got was not what I wanted.

  2. I think it’s a little premature to say “Old-school RPGs as we know it are dying due to this one mindset.” While Mass Effect 2 might have been watered down, it was released by the same company who just months before released Dragon Age: Origins, one of the most hardcore RPGs in years.

    Look at all the other RPGs out there that are in-depth and cater to the hardcore. Read any preview for FF13 and people talk about how deep the combat and leveling up system is. Diablo 3, one of the most popular action RPGs of all time, will be sticking to its hardcore RPG roots.

    Suffice to say, just because Mass Effect 2 and Fable 3 are being stripped of many of their RPG elements doesn’t mean old-school RPGs are dying, especially when so many other hardcore RPGs are coming out around it.

    Plus, Fable 3 is a horrible example because Peter Molyneux is just straight up crazy. That man would turn Fable 4 into a racing only gaming if he thought he had come up with a new way to “revolutionize” the genre.

    I do completely agree that I hope the video game industry can find a happy medium, but I don’t think right now we are in any real danger. The video game industry, like many things, is very cyclical, so if we do ever have a push to the more casual, eventually things will always shift back the other way to the more hardcore. It’s just the nature of things.

    • I don’t completely agree that there’s an ebb and flow in gaming trends, so to speak. Actually, I think quite the opposite: things that are affected directly by technological advances tend to have a linear progression of trends. Do you see any green-screen iPods on the shelves? How many times have you viewed a black and white, silent film at the theatre in past…well, ever?

      While things that are unaffected by technology do have a circular trend progression (like fashion, for example), products that depend on technology tend to always move forward. That being said, I still think the traditional RPG is far from being out the window.

    • I disagree Shawn. The audience for video games has grown substantially (especially since the Wii). And because of that, the industry has shifted its priorities.

      The industry is definitely not cyclical and shifts from hardcore, to casual, and back. When has it ever done that?

      The two have been entirely separated for a large period of time. And it isn’t until this console generation that the two have started to become one.

      Dragon Age: Origins is just one of the few games (as I mentioned in the article) that would provide me those old-school RPG mechanics. Every genre is starting to implement RPG elements, JRPGs are dying, and the lines between genres are blurring more and more each year.

      These changes are the start of something new. Something that concerns me. It is this “sprinkling of casual elements” (which was done in WoW) that could eventually wash away reasons I really enjoy games.

    • Jamie, obviously there isn’t a cyclical nature to technology. I’m not talking about technology though, I’m talking about software.

      If you need examples of the video game market being cyclical, all you need to do is look at the reemergence of 8-bit and 16-bit style games. Mega Man 9, Bionic Commando Rearmed, and Shadow Complex all relied on old-school 8-bit style gameplay, and were all some of the best selling titles of the last year or so.

      Another great example is the reemergence of gighting games in 2009. It’s safe to say that the fighting genre has pretty much been dead the last 5 years. Last year though that all changed thanks to Street Fighter 4 and Blazblu. Now fighting games are on the rise again, and will probably have a healthy life for a while, but eventually they will fall again.

    • Shawn I disagree with your examples. 8 bit and 16 bit games were not an example of cyclical, but instead an example of technology allowing them to be redistributed through digital downloads. Bringing back, or recreating, cult classics is not a good example imo.

      Fighting games rising and falling isn’t an example of cyclical between hardcore and casual either. Its an example of the market being oversaturated with fighting games when they peaked and then dying off because of that. Same is happening with music games. Oversaturated the market, found its peak, and now the # of SKUs are dropping substantially in 2010.

      The industry has never been cyclical with hardcore games and casual games. They have always been separate markets that were independent of eachother. Now that is not the case as the industry is molding games to cater to the casual and bring them into other games outside of Wii/Indie/XBL/PSN.

    • I would still say that the re-emergence of these new retro games are largely thanks to technological advances. Thanks to the advent of downloadable titles, we can now see a Mega Man 9 and a Mega Man 10, whereas just before this generation, it would have been impossible to deliver that experience; the large majority of gamers would not have been happy to buy Mega Man 9 as a standalone game on PS2, XBox, or Gamecube.

      Likewise, although most people don’t seem to realize it, 2D Fighting games – and good ones, at that – were made all decade. We’re just now beginning to get back into them thanks to Street Fighter 4 and the advanced visual look it brings.

      In a way, these trends look cyclical, but why do you think they look that way to begin with? Why do you think they went away in the first place? If you ask me, the answer is technology.

    • I see your point about technology Jamie, and I tried to agree with that on some level in my most recent most, which unfortunately wasn’t a proper reply because I forgot to hit the reply button.

  3. Kevin, why do you think cycles happen in consumer products? They occur because things get oversatuated or undersatuated. They occur because new technology comes along to bring back old items in new ways. You simply disagree with my definition of cyclical, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

    Look at how the market is oversaturated with rhythm games and hence the sales have dropped. This could be a trend that continues for years, but I bet that eventually the rhthym genre will make a big comeback.

    In either case, we are both trying to argue what will happen in the future with casual and hardcore games, and the truth is neither one of us knows. If you go onto Gamasutra and do some research you will see tat during the economic recession, hardcore gamers have spent considerably more money than casual gamers. A lot of companies have taken notice of this. Does this mean games will switch back to being more hardcore. I don’t know.

    Maybe this means that there will be a merging of hardcore and casual, but I seriously doubt that hardcore games will ever go away. I feel the same way about casual games. They won’t ever go away either. In any case, not matter what happens, we will all learn to adapt.

    • You used cyclical in the context of the video game industry at first; not the video game market. Those are two different things.

      While the market is of course cyclical, I disagreed that the industry is cyclical. Sure the industry is directly affected by the market trends, but this trend (rise of casual gamers) is an entirely new trend to the industry. Which is the reason I disagreed with the industry being cyclical between hardcore and casual.

      And it is because of this new trend that the video game industry’s mindset is shifting. This is the reasoning behind accessibility getting such a large push from the industry. And it is the reason as to why RPGs (as one example) are seeing mechanics and elements get watered down. Which will continue to happen as trends of accessibility are showing in every genre today more than ever.

  4. Anyhow, I guess it is probably better to word it as “Old-school RPGs as we know it are evolving due to this one mindset.”

    But to me, this evolution is the same as dying lol

    • avatar Abdurehaman

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  5. The reason I have such a strong opinion on this matter is that I am very optomistic that while it sometimes appears that things in the video game industry are swinging towards the casual gamer, in the end everything will balance itself out. If game sales during the recession are anything to go buy, video game companies would be foolish to not cater to hardcore gamers, as we are the only ones buying a lot of titles right now.

    I strongly believe that eventually developers will figure the balancing act out and will be able to provide titles that both cater to the hardcore and the casual. Take Forza 3 as an example. It’s a racing game that can just as easily be played and enjoyed by the hardcore gamer as it can by the casual gamer.

    You just gotta have faith guys. I promise it’s not as bad as it might appear at times. Hardcore games will live on, and so will the hardcore gamer. :-)

  6. Let’s put it this way; I’m glad there are more casual games out there. Plants vs. Zombies is mega fun, and at the end of the day, if I want a challenge, I can boot up Master Ninja mode with Ninja Gaiden.

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    • avatar Ulises

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  7. “Hardcore” is killing the industry. Catering to an ever shrinking group of consumers, no matter how much money you can squeeze out of them, is not the solution. Neither is “perfect balance.” The consumers who aren’t the most dedicated are the ones that should be tended to more. Why? Then they become the new group of dedicated purchases, guaranteed to stick by through thick and thin, giving companies opportunity to court even more new users. Naturally, not every single new user will stick, but that goes without saying.

    There’s a difference between “accessibility” and “making too simple for its own good.” A lot of companies don’t know the difference. However, I think scaling back on some of the more mind-numbing and annoying features is a blessing. We’ve come a long way from the Atari and NES days where games had to played through in one sitting with a limited number of lives and extensive information withheld.

    That’s another thing. This is not a new thing. This has been going on since day one of video games. The earliest games with simple pick-up-and-play experiences. Then complexity began to creep. We had the computer games of the 80s that had a limited fanbase. The NES came in and simplified gaming again. Then newer consoles came out and layered a whole bunch of extra stuff on top. Then PS1 simplified things again. So on and so forth.

    It’s going too far that’s a problem, not the idea of making games less frustrating.

    • I don’t know if I would say hardcore is killing the industry. But it feels, to me, that hardcore gamers are being asked to let things be toned down for the casual gamers. And as a hardcore gamer, I’m not a fan.

      Now I’m not saying catering to the casual gamers shouldn’t be done. But I do not agree with the approach being taken by developers to bring casual elements into mainstream games. Watering down elements or completely removing them altogether because casuals find it to be too much is dumb. Allow both to co-exist (at the least). Shawn mentioned Forza 3. That is a fantastic example.

      You make a great point that there is a difference between accessibility and making games too simple. It is the happy medium between the two that I am looking for. Simpler is not always better imo. And removing or watering down elements isn’t the correct way to make things more simple.

      And of course this isn’t a new thing. But accessibility is surely more prevalent than ever as casual gamers find their place and continue to grow.

      “Its going to far thats a problem” — exactly!

  8. Interesting read! I agree that the genre blending and mainstream acceptance of gaming combined with a push to court newer gamers will be an evolutionary force in changing where games are heading. I can see how that creates a feeling of uncertainty about games moving forward, but I don’t think that more accessibility in games design is going to sound the death knell for the hardcore experiences you cherish.

    Dragon Age, like you mentioned, is one great example. Demon’s Souls is another, and they aren’t alone — they’re just the ones that jump to mind.

    As far as the JRPG is concerned, outside of the Final Fantasy type franchises, they’ve always been niche in terms of audience and sales numbers. But the devoted followings of Shin Megami Tensei (Atlus) games and others show that there is a dependable market for those types of experiences. The more accessible games aren’t competing in the same market space as the Persona 4s of the world.

    This is purely a semantics point, but shouldn’t hardcore denote something out of the mainstream anyway? If every title is hardcore, then the term loses its meaning.

    Look at all the discussion! Nice write-up.

  9. I think Kevin’s point is not that casual games entering the market is bad, but rather that converting pre-existing, proven hardcore experiences into more casual friendly ones compromises the very foundation upon which those series were built.

    At the same time, I believe that he (like myself) would rather see them simply introduce new IP’s that are more accessible to casual gamers, whilst keeping our beloved franchises and their integrity intact.

    As Chris pointed out, PopCap is doing wonders on that front, as are all the companies behind the social network phenomena that has exploded onto Facebook with the likes of Mafia Wars, Farmville, etc.

    Basically, the point is that it’s a bad sign that not only are new, casual friendly IP’s being introduced to cater to the newer, more casual based demographic of the modern day, but preexisting franchises are being compromised to meet those same demo’s.

    The two should be separate entities – leave our old hardcore games and series alone, and keep the casual stuff to newer IP’s.

  10. As the official advocate of the Devil, (if you don’t get it, don’t worry, you will) I would like to add two perspectives.

    1.) Accessibility for video games means mom and dad can play. Your dumb little brother can play, and you don’t have to tell him the blue excitebike is under his control when it clearly isn’t. Your non-gaming friends can play and not feel left in the dust. As a medium that is quickly replacing most past family/friend related activities (bored-games.. I mean board games, going outside and playing basketball, dating…) they can strike while the iron is hot and give everyone a shot at gaming. It also means, for WoW players in the present, or as I call it “Cherry Garcia” (*See all-time favorite flavors) WoW, you don’t have to have a big guild to match your personal skill. Now you and your small band of close friends can pick up a few randoms and do dungeons. More players having fun means more money which leads me to…

    2.) More people playing means more money. More money means more ability to not work under deadlines (Anyone else heard of a company called Blizzard?) and being able to craft games until they are exactly what you want them to be. More money also means moving technology forward even faster. Think about the time it took Nintendo to go from NES to SNES, nearly 10 years. Sony was able to produce 3 tiers of systems in the same time nowadays. I’m all for bigger better faster and more realer (that’s right, now 20% bonus realer) than ever before. Holodecks can’t get here fast enough!

    Nothing personal to anyone, but if you want to play something that has a reduced number of really successful players and will NEVER be dumbed down so as to include everyone, you can always play the State Lotto.


  11. I feel like the casual-vs-hardcore dilemma we’ve been facing this generation has replaced the “console wars” of old. Because of most games being multi-console, there is a sort of agreement between PS3/360 owners that the Wii is the enemy for being so drastically different. Sure, the former bicker between each other over their online services, graphical differences, controllers, etc… but the common enemy still seems to be Nintendo and their Wii/DS, which have created such a boom in the casual market.

    Just as the “console wars” played out with one side winning but the other still pushing on in some form or another, I think the same will happen here. The casual market won’t stick around in the same way the hardcore gamers will, so I think we’ll see casual trends in more hardcore games to hook those new gamers and pull them away from their casual roots… and as time goes on, the hardcore will pick back up.

    In the meantime, the hardcore market will stick with the industry because there are games for them that are excellent and hopefully more and more new gamers will step up from the casual shovelware into real, “hardcore” games.

    • the harcore vs casual thing is such a wierd thing if you think about it. surely as gamers we should all be happy to bond with eachother over a love of a format. I remember growing up in the pre internet days when just finding out the kid down the street was a gamer seemed like finding gold. Then gaming becomes this mainstream thing and all of a sudden just being gamer wasn’t good enough. were you fps or rpg, nintendo or sega, hardcore or casual and a million other things.

      It seems as gamers we want two things 1)someone who shares our passion we can discuss things with 2)someone who almost shares our passion we can shit upon.

  12. Very good read, and good discussion. There definitely needs to be a happy medium somewhere in there between Hardcore and Casual, but finding it is difficult; it’s simple enough to acknowledge that it’s there.

    Gaming isn’t such an “unpopular” hobby these days, but just because you have WiiFit doesn’t mean you’re a “gamer” any more than being proficient at Rock Band means you can actually play guitar.

    • avatar Aleksandr

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  13. avatar Kagebure

    Huh. Casual Vs. Hardcore. What the fuck am I? I collect Series of games some for the PC, Most for the Xbox, and Few for my PS3. I play games too Have fun an enjoyable experiences. I try to at least bring one friend with me. I feel Better with a friend playing with me. This hasn’t held me back from enjoying true Single player gems Such as the Fallout Games. And Call of Duty MW2 is boring too me I do enjoy WaW Though.

  14. avatar Daniel

    So I’m a big game manufacturer, and I need to make some cash. I like games, but I, and my shareholders, like money a lot more.

    Now, I can make a hunnert thousand bux by catering to a handful of “hardcore” whiners who want to believe they have the right to dictate the course of gaming just because, not having a life, they play 23.5 hours a day, and are unlikely to produce progeny to buy games in the future….

    Or I can make 100 million by catering to the casual gamer who buys games for themselves AND their families; Who spends as much per capita on games as the hardcore whiners; Who use 1/10 the server overhead; and who don’t whine when we adjust the game to suit the customer base.


  15. avatar Daniel

    On second thought, maybe you should take up chess. I understand it hasn’t been “dumbed down” in quite awhile. And it’s free, which should appeal to the “hardcore” gamer.

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